The Seahawks playing in Seattle with only half their home-field advantage that may be the NFL’s biggest?
Or without any of it?
Usually rockin’, roarin’ CenturyLink Field as quiet as a junior-high school’s practice field?
That is becoming increasingly likely for the Seahawks in a 2020 NFL season that will be like no other.
A league source with knowledge of their contingency planning told The News Tribune the Seahawks are exploring the possibility of playing their eight regular-season home games in a half-filled CenturyLink Field, because of social-distancing requirements in the coronavirus pandemic. That plan could involve leaving entire rows or every other seat empty, and decisions on which season-ticket holders would get which games as part of amended packages.
Behind the scenes the Seahawks are also considering home games with fewer than half their seats filled, with perhaps 20,000 or so fans. That would leave entire swaths of CenturyLink Field empty—and quiet.
And those may be team’s best-case scenarios.
It remains possible the COVID-19 virus and social-distancing requirements in four-phase Washington’s Safe Start reopening plan for King County could force the Seahawks to play home games with no fans at all inside CenturyLink Field.
The official seating capacity of Seattle’s open-air stadium in the SoDo district downtown is 68,740.
“We would definitely miss our fans, no question,” Seahawks general manager John Schneider said. “No question.”
Last month, commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memorandum to all 32 NFL teams requiring them to reimburse any ticket sales if fans are unable to attend games this year due to social distancing. Goodell’s memo stated: “All clubs will have in place a policy under which, if a game is canceled, or is played under conditions that prohibit fans from attending, anyone purchasing a ticket directly from the club (i.e., season tickets, group sales and/or partial season plans) will have the option of either receiving a full refund or applying the amount paid toward a future ticket purchase directly from the club.”
Last month Pittsburgh’s director of communications Burt Lauten announced the Steelers, in more open Pennsylvania, “are holding back 50% of the individual game ticket sales inventory because we are preparing for possible social distancing scenarios this year at Heinz Field.”
Forbes has estimated the NFL could lose 38 percent of its revenue—$5.5 billion in sales of tickets, concessions, sponsors, parking and at team stores—if it plays games in stadiums with no fans in them this season.
Using team revenue data from 2018, Forbes said the Seahawks were 16th, right in the middle of the league, in in-stadium revenue at $156 million of its $439 million in total revenue. That would be a loss of 35.5% of its total revenue if Seattle doesn’t have fans at its games this season. (The majority of team revenues come from the NFL’s national television contracts, which are worth more than $7 billion annually).
On the field, competitively, this is potentially a bigger deal in Seattle than in other NFL cities.
I’ve been to every stadium in the league during my career, plus many no longer in existence. CenturyLink Field with its cantilevered roofs bounding the sound back of 69,000 screaming Seahawks fans back onto the field, Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium, home to the Super Bowl-champion Chiefs, and the New Orleans Saints’ Superdome are the NFL’s loudest places. Those venues have a tangible impact on each game played there.
Seattle uncharacteristically dipped last season going 4-4 in CenturyLink Field. That cost the Seahawks the NFC West title, home playoff games after a 10-2 start and their best chance to get back to the Super Bowl.
But since they moved to the NFC and into their new SoDo stadium in 2002 the Seahawks are second in the NFC in home wins to Green Bay at Lambeau Field (101). Seattle is 99-45 at home, a .688 winning percentage, in that span. Virtually all of those games have been played before a packed house. Only one Seahawks home game since 2003 has not been sold out.
Seattle is 48-16 with a point differential of plus-538 in their last 64 home games. That’s the league’s second-best home record and home point differential since 2012 (New England, 54-10, plus-790).
The noise has made Seattle the home stadium with the most false-starts by opponents over the last decade. All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner often talks of how difficult it is for him to relay defensive signals and adjustments to his Seahawks teammates over the noise inside CenturyLink Field before each opposing offense’s plays. Wagner has said it’s in some ways sometimes easier for the Seahawks to play defense on the road because of Seattle’s home noise.
“Well, maybe everybody can just watch the game (on television) and yell out the window,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said, maybe only half-jokingly. “And we’ll still be relatively really good.”
The Seahawks have had official sell-out crowds in 146 consecutive home games. The CenturyLink Field attendance record is 69,190 for Seattle’s game against Philadelphia on Nov. 20, 2016. For the seventh-consecutive year, Seattle posted at least a 97% rate of season-ticket renewals while selling all 61,000 of its available season tickets. Season tickets remain sold out, and the team’s “Blue Pride” waiting list for them is currently at capacity with 12,000 membership deposits.
So, yes, playing home games with half, fewer than half or none of the usual sellout crowds would negate a huge Seahawks advantage during the 2020 season.
“You know, whatever has to happen,” Carroll said. “Everybody needs to be wide open and ready to adapt and all of that and all aspects of our lives right now, and certainly as we approach the season. We are going to have to be prepared.
“There’s still a great opportunity to show the game to our fans through the media resources. But if that’s the way it is, it will be a different experience—but it can happen.
“There’s scrimmages and stuff like that you have and you’ve played, we pipe in sound and all that. If we are playing and there’s no fans, I promise you, I’m going to do everything I can to pipe in the sound to make it as loud as possible, and we’ll do everything we can to make that happen.”
The least likely scenario at this point, with King County still in a modified phase one as one of the nation’s counties most restricted by the pandemic, is CenturyLink Field being full as usual with more than 68,000 fans packed into the stadium for Seahawks games this fall.
The New York Times conducted a survey of 511 epidemiologists asking what activities they feel comfortable doing now and might soon. It published the story this week. Attending a sporting event was the activity with the lowest comfort level. Only 3 percent of the epidemiologists The Times surveyed said they expect to attend a sporting event this summer. Only 32 percent said they expect to go to a game in the next three to 12 months. Sixty-four percent said they’d be comfortable going to a game after June 2021.
“This is as much about feelings of social responsibility as about personal infection risk. Large-scale gatherings are a contact tracing nightmare and seem like they should be shut down until we have a really good sense of what’s safe/how to screen people,” Steve Mooney, a epidemiologist at the University of Washington a few miles north of CenturyLink Field, told The Times.
Washington was the first state to have a confirmed case of COVID-19 (a 35-year-old Snohomish County man in late January). It was an early hot spot for the virus nationally. Five months later, Washington remains one of the most restricted states in the U.S.
That contrasts to Florida. That state called pro sports an essential business months ago. Florida is welcoming the NHL, NBA and, announced Wednesday, the Sounders and Major League Soccer to its state to resume play next month.
Will the Seahawks be playing home games with few or no fans but playing at Miami in a stadium full of mostly Dolphins fans in Florida on Oct. 4?
No one in the NFL knows exactly what the games will look and sound like this fall. Teams across the league are planning for every possible scenario for when (or if) regular-season games begin as scheduled Sept. 10.
“We have to be ready to adapt, and we just don’t know,” Carroll said. “And whatever it is, we’ll take it on and figure it out.”